Emotional Labor

This is something that just came in a conversation online, and reading and learning about it struck such a note with me that I felt a need to post something about it. It has nothing, thankfully, to do with childbirth, but rather a type of work that a lot of people are expected to do, but which a lot of people might not think of as work, and so don’t see as something worthy of compensation.

Emotional labor (here’s the Wikipedia article on it), essentially, is emotional expression (or suppression) that you have to perform as a part of your job, in the simplest definition. Those waiters at your favorite restaurant? The counter workers at the local fast food place? Virtually any retail worker you actually see wearing an ID in a store? That’s what they do. They aren’t naturally happy, perky, and helpful (well, most of them, anyway); it is a part of their job that they have to appear to be positive, even (perhaps especially) when they don’t feel like it. Even if they’re having the worst day of their lives, they have to look and act like they’re always happy, always willing to help you, all the time. And as someone who spent the first year or so working at a bookstore working at the cash register, it’s exhausting – more exhausting, on a lot of days, than the physical portion of the job. While it took a while to get used to being on my feet for 8 hours a day, I did get used to it – but I never got used to pretending to be happy all the time, and I think that, more than anything else, sucked the energy right out of me.

But that’s not where emotional labor ends, and it’s something I wish I had known, or been able to get around my privileged position on, a long time ago. Because you can also end up doing emotional labor on behalf of those around you in your personal life, and in a lot of circumstances, it’s never something that is seen as labor, even though it can be just as exhausting emotionally as helping someone move. I can think of at least one friendship that I might have been able to save if I hadn’t been asking for, and expecting, such a great deal of emotional labor from someone who should not have felt obligated to give it. It’s one of those things I never really thought about before it was brought to my attention, but asking (or expecting) emotional support from a friend constantly can be just as tiring to them as asking them to help you constantly move around all your heavy furniture. I think women are probably hardest-hit by this one, because it seems to have become an expected part of what women do, but I’m not sure I Can explain that without being terribly insulting, so instead I’ll just point you to this article – “Where’s My Cut?”: On Unpaid Emotional Labor.

I know that, having gone through some pretty serious psychological treatment, that there are times when I will need a lot of emotional support. I just wasn’t really aware of how draining it could be for those being asked for it, especially if they’re getting nothing in return. So that’s my big, heavy topic for the weekend.

Also, for completely unrelated reasons, I’ve had a song running through my head for about a week now, and while I generally try not to inflict my musical preferences on others, I thought I’d share this one with you:


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